Photo by Felix Sanchez.
Judge Lori Chambers Gray is unstoppable. She proved that when she entered law school in the 1980s as one of few Black women at South Texas College of Law. She proved it again when no one would accept her at major law firms, so she built her own practice from scratch. And she proved it yet again when she was elected to the bench along with 18 other Black women in Harris County, Texas, in 2018. As a judge of the Texas 262nd District Court, Gray acts as the role model she didn’t get the chance to see when she was starting out.
A lifelong resident of Houston, Gray’s work as judge allows her to play an active role in helping shape the community that raised her. In the last few years, she has partnered with the Community Supervision Department to start the “New Chapter” community service reading program; expanded drug treatment opportunities; and presides over a mental health competency restoration court. Always working to keep courtrooms ahead of the times, she has also worked to extend the use of technology in court proceedings and jury trials.
With nearly 25 years of experience in court, 20 of which were spent in her own criminal practice, Gray is seeking re-election to continue her service. Her presence on the bench brings deep litigation experience to the bench while inspiring the next generation to continue breaking down barriers in the profession.
Lawdragon: So, why did you become a lawyer initially?
Judge Lori Chambers Gray: I was always interested in legal television shows and police stories, but it seemed like the courts and the police were fields only filled with men. Then I was introduced to speech and debate in my high school, the local M.C. Williams High School, and I had this teacher, C. Lee Turner, who made an impact on my world.
It was through that introduction that my whole world changed because he taught us how to compete, to prepare our files, to collect information. We would spend weekends just getting our files together because this was well before computers. We had a debate coach, Wesley McGinnis, and I learned the power of words and preparation. And I think that's what first bit me – we were able to compete in competitions. And we were actually winning them.
We won all over the state. We traveled. We were the underdogs – the low-income school not known for anything other than football. But my teacher and my coach taught me how to organize, how to present and how to win. And that's what made me think about becoming a lawyer. But then I still had a long journey.
LD: Of course.
LG: I'd never met a lawyer. There was a babysitter that we had who would tell me about her brother who was a lawyer, but I never met him. But I always thought it was the coolest thing that her brother was a lawyer – but he was a man. And none of our coaches were women. They were all men. And my debate partner was a man, and only a few of us were women.
LD: It's so fascinating how people find their voice. Do you have any other life experiences that shaped your career?
LG: Well, growing up, I was the oldest child in my family of six children. And being the eldest child, and particularly the eldest girl child, made me a leader. So, I had that responsibility at an early age. In fact, I was 10 when I started to babysit my baby sister. I think that life experience did two things: first, it made me understand early that I wanted to get as much education as I could because I didn’t want to move into the role of having children before I was able to understand and see the world.
But second, it also made me aware that if you're not really planning things, you could find yourself in a position where you're not able to further your education. My parents, especially my mom, would always tell us that we had to go to college and do well.
So, that was the experience that made me know I was going to college, but I just didn't think that I would be able to go to law school.
LD: Did you debate through college?
LG: In law school I did, but not really in college. It’s interesting, because I didn't believe that I could be a lawyer, and I studied communications. So, I worked at the radio station. But I had no idea about the possibility of becoming an attorney during college.
I remember that when I was graduating from college, I was listening to one of the women say that they were going to law school. And that was in the back of my mind. She was graduating and she was going to law school. And I thought, “That's pretty cool.”
So, I had a conversation with another woman – who was not African American – but she was a woman, and she told me that if I was interested in law, I should be a paralegal. Not a lawyer, but a paralegal. She said it would be easier. But my heart was saying, “Why would I spend time doing something that I really don’t want to do?” There was no one that really encouraged me to become a lawyer because, at that point, Black girls didn't have that option.
LD: So, what led you to then apply to law school?
LG: I got a job working in media at PBS, and I met a lawyer, a Black woman, who I believe was on the PBS board. I shared with her one day that I had thought about becoming a lawyer, and she encouraged me and said that if I did, she would write me a letter of recommendation. So, I just decided to take the LSAT. And then I went forward.
LD: Did you enjoy law school?
LG: Law school was intense.
LD: Yeah, that was my experience, as well.
LG: Right after I got my bachelor's, I went straight into my master's degree, because I just wanted to keep going. So, I did my master’s thesis, and I thought that was the worst of it. And then I enrolled in law school.
I loved, loved, loved studying the cases, but the discipline was at a level that I had not seen. It was something that I loved doing, but my whole world closed down. Grueling. And when I went, I think I was maybe number 10 or 11 of African Americans to graduate from the school.
LD: Oh, wow.
LG: Yeah, and no Black women at the South Texas College of Law at that time. And every time I would open my mouth to brief a case, we'd be in a big, huge lecture hall and there would always be this hush that would come over the room because it was like, "Oh, she's talking.” And then there was the added pressure of having to be able to compete in a highly competitive classroom. That was the reality.
LD: So then after you graduated law school, can you tell me a little bit about your practice up to when you decided to run for the bench?
LG: There were no opportunities to join major law firms when I graduated because women and minority women were not candidates. So, I went back to media and I started to manage a radio station that was licensed to Prairie View A&M University and teach classes. I enjoyed it, but my passion was being on the floor of a courtroom. And I knew that I was going to have to create my own law firm if I was going to have one. So, I set about doing that. I built a criminal defense practice from the ground up.
LG: I also did civil cases, though. I did anything that came through the door. My clients would be people like a grandmother who may have known someone who was arrested, but then also needed a will. So, I had to be able to be proficient in getting the whole package done.
I had a cousin who started with me as my secretary, and she would answer the phone and do computers and stuff so that I would have an assistant to begin the build. With help like that, I didn't have to pay the going rate, so I was able to pull together resources through family so that I could start the practice. And that's what I did. In exchange, I think I sent her to college and did things for her.
LD: That's so great. So then were you able to get in the courtroom and get back to what you enjoyed so much with debate?
LG: I think my experience in media was really helpful because I was able to make alliances. I was on speed dial with Johnnie Cochran, for example. Well before O.J. Simpson.
LD: Wow. That’s amazing.
LG: So, having that network to call upon made creating and building a law firm less scary.
I also had this rule: give me 72 hours. I could learn anything that I needed to learn on any matter of law and present myself in court after those 72 hours as if I had been doing this for years. So that was my thing. Give me three days if I don't know it, I'm going to learn it. And then I'm going to present and address the issue.
LD: Do you have an example of putting that to the test?
LG: There was a case regarding a major corporation that will remain unnamed, but the major corporation was a corporation that was known to not settle. Period. They had this notorious reputation that they would not settle on any in any way, in any case. So, me not being so aware of that reputation at the time, I just took the case, because I figured I’d try it. I prepped that case. I filed that case. I researched that case and low and behold, they offered a settlement. And it wasn't for a small amount of money. It was a decent settlement. And because as I kept reading, I kept going and going. So, the goal is to survive summary judgment.
I remembered the gentleman I was representing came into my office as I was getting the settlement sheet ready, and I apologized for not getting him even more money, because I’d worked really hard, but I couldn’t get them to go any further. And he looked at me and he said, "Lori", he said, "I'm thankful for what you got, because I went to five lawyers before I came to you, and they all turned me down.
"They turned me down because they said I had no case." And I remember sitting there thinking he came to me because he was desperate, but in his desperation, because he had gone to all the big television lawyers, the billboard lawyers, and they wouldn't accept the case. So, that was gratifying and humbling.
LD: What inspired you to run for the bench? What do you find meaningful about creating a more just system?
LG: The ability to inspire young people. People who may have lost their dreams. I want to inspire them and show them that they can become lawyers. They can become judges. And I want to do my part to create a more just system and contribute in a positive way to a system that has not always been receptive to minorities and women.
I have a motto. I’ve always felt that when more people come to the table, you get a bigger banquet. You don’t get less, you get more. I just wanted to give my little more and share that as best I could at this season in my life. And that's why.